The King David Dossier

Welcome to Pentecost 10...   King David dominates our interpretation of the texts this week.

2 Samuel 11: 1 – 15

So, I guess the question that I always want to ask is this: why does David get a pass? The army goes to war – its soldiers are forbidden to have sex while on campaign so that their collective energy and mindset is focused on the task at hand. Of course, David doesn’t go with them into battle – unusual, good shepherds led their flock and protected them from their enemies - but stays home to check out their wives and girlfriends and successfully finds one he likes while on surveillance from the vantage point of his roof top. (Bathsheba is bathing, cleansing herself after her period. The meaning is plain – she is not pregnant….  Yet). David uses his position as king to give Bathsheba little option but to sleep with him. She gets pregnant. David then hatches a plot to save face and sends for Uriah – Bathsheba’s husband – hoping that as a result of his leave from the war zone, everyone will think that he is the father. (Of course, if the child grew up to be ruddy and handsome and seemed to have some proficiency with harp and sling, tongues might be wagging around the well…) When that plan fails – unlike the king, Uriah is an honorable man and refuses to break the no sex edict - he sends Uriah back to the front, carrying his own death sentence. He is killed in battle and after a brief period of mourning, David takes Bathsheba into his household as wife.  I can’t wait for part two of the story which will be here next week… 

The story itself echoes Samuel’s original warning about kings. What David does is a gross abuse of power, a coercive use of power. As theologian Robert Hoch describes it, “The story is not complicated by love, or speculations about the psychological condition of David, or even a reference to a divine plan. These may be inferred but they are certainly not given by the text. This is not a crime of passion: the routine and premeditated character of David's actions point primarily to the calculations of power and not towards the recklessness one expects from unreasoning passion.”

And the idea pf coercion, in this case, sexual coercion, i.e. rape, is not incidental to this story. The Hebrew verb "to take" in verse 4 (translated as "to get" in the NRSV) recalls the aforementioned Samuel's warning to Israel about the nature of kings: "'These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take . . .'" (1 Samuel 8:11-18). He will take your sons, your daughters, your fields, your wealth. Coercive power will be, according to Samuel, characteristic of the "ways" of the king. It is also the way of rapists. It is also the way of David.

This sounds all too familiar in our own day, but David attempts to create a reality in which his crime is impossible to detect. Nevertheless, as we shall see next week, David is the only one who is fooled. Likewise, David's seemingly impervious employment of powers to silence and disguise violence are decisively exposed through Bathsheba's only and deeply vulnerable utterance, "'I am pregnant'".

Under other circumstances, this would be an utterance accompanied by an outburst of joy; on this occasion it is greeted instead by a systematic cover up. Imminent life sets into motion imminent death. Although this narrative is far from complete, it seems wise to let this text do its work. This is an indictment of the whole system of the monarchy – the bad shepherds from last week’s texts – and again, a validation of Samuel’s warning to Israel. Important to remember – and in giving David a pass, as do our traditions – that Samuel and the other ‘historical books’ were written during the time of the Babylonian conquest, the destruction of Solomon’s temple, and the subsequent exile in Babylon. David is no hero, and power can be seductive.

2 Kings 4: 42 - 44

OK… a shorter comment for a shorter text (and one we will largely ignore on Sunday). We are reintroduced to the prophet Elisha and are told the story of a miraculous feeding – a small portion of loaves and fresh ears of grain (corn?) are to set before a large crowd of people, and there will be food to spare.

This is paired in the lectionary with the reading from the Gospel of John about the feeding of the 5,000 (see below) but it arrives at what one could argue is one of the points of the gospel text - especially if we move beyond the literal story and consider the bread of life angle. The real hero of this text then becomes the faith of the prophet and people; understood as both obedience and confidence – not belief. It is one thing to say that “I believe that such and such is possible.” It is another thing to attempt something because love compels it and trust in God undergirds it. Wishing never makes it so…but boldly stepping out to act can bring amazing results.

Ephesians 3: 14 - 21

This actually ties into the Samuel lesson, in that it is about the exercise of power. That God is the ‘Father’ “from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name,” is really about authorization, not parenthood. It is God who empowers us to exercise our own power and authority in a way that is consistent with he way that God, is. In this way we honor God, by using our power to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

This editor’s note: This portion of what is known as the letter to the Ephesians seems to be the end of a letter. Paul appears to be signing off. But, Ken, you say, the letter goes on for three more chapters. True enough, but as is the case with other letters – most notably that ‘collection’ of letters to the Corinthians – there may be more than one letter included under the name of the Ephesians.

John 6: 1 - 21

What we misunderstand about the doctrinal premise that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine is that what it is meant to convey is the idea that Jesus is able to both fully reveal to us who God is, and who we truly are as human beings.

This text, too, is a refutation of the abuse of power and the system that David – and all of the kings represent. It is why Jesus in this passage – when he suddenly is gripped with the fear that the people might attempt to proclaim him as king – that he slips away to the mountains and safety. He wants no part of that. (Talk about revealing something about who we are as humans – Jesus knew his limits and did not want to be tempted with that sort of power).

The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is one of the only carryovers in the gospel of John form the synoptic gospels.  In those writings, it is obviously a eucharistic image and is tied to the Passover supper that Jesus will share with his disciples, along with the words that ground this in the sacrificial system… my body broken, my blood poured out.  John’s gospel has no last supper, at least one in which bread is broken and wine us shared with those familiar words. It is not a Passover meal as it is in synoptics, so that John is able to avoid the imagery of the Passover lamb. Instead, John has Jesus wash the disciples’ feet. This act of humility becomes the sacrament, the action to ritualize and then to imitate.

In all of this, what Jesus reveals about God is that God is not the one who demands violence and sacrifice. What it reveals about us is that we need gods who want violence so that we – like David and his treachery – can cover our crime as divine necessity. Powerful stuff.